Being accepted into the YFU program in 1978 was a great opportunity for me. I had a strong passion for everything Japanese and I was thrilled to be accepted into the Japan program. There was not much information about Japan in rural Maine in the late 1970’s. Not much on the news, and the Internet was just a dream. The local and school libraries only had a few books about Japan, and I had them checked out most of the time.
When my trip was finally a reality I was placed with a wonderful family with whom I remain in close contact even today. The experience changed my life and made such an impression that, after so many years, it has been documented in my short book, Back to Japan: The Chronicles of an American Teenager in Japan. Here is an excerpt…
We drove for what seemed like hours and all I wanted to do was sleep. I read it was bad manners to fall asleep while riding in someone’s car in Japan, and I was very conscious of not wanting to offend anyone. If I had them, I would have used toothpicks to prop my eyelids open. Jetlag had me. Mr. Sugiyama kept telling me to go ahead and sleep, but oh no, not me, I wasn’t about to offend anybody on my first day in Japan. It got darker and darker and I had captured a second wind as we finally turned into a driveway. We got out of the car. I collected my bag and moved toward the house. A warm glow from the front light cast shadows along the walkway. I could not see too much and even if I could, I was so overwhelmed it wouldn’t have mattered.
The whole family greeted us at the door and it was a bit over powering, but they were as curious as I was. Mrs. Sugiyama was waiting as we walked into the entryway and I think she was a little surprised when I automatically slipped off my shoes, (and boy did that feel good.) before I stepped up from the tile onto the polished wooden floor. She seemed to pause as if she was going to tell me to take of my shoes, and then decided I didn’t need the coaching. She was able to educate me on the in-house slippers everyone wears however. This means that when I step up onto the wooden floor of the house I am to put on a pair of slippers meant for inside use. I slid my feet into the slippers, but my heels hang over the end because my feet are larger than the slippers. I set my bag down just at the edge of the wooden area and it disappeared into the house in a matter of seconds.
While I am biased and think my story is special and in many ways unique, I can’t help but wonder if what I have experienced might help a new generation see the Japanese culture for a little more than just Sushi and Anime. When you look at Japan from the outside you see the bright lights, the plastic food and the packed cities. Being an exchange student gives you a truly exceptional opportunity to see a country from the inside. Not as a tourist, but as part of a family. Imbedded, you might say. You will gain a unique perspective that will be something you can carry with you for the rest of your life. It can be a fond memory from your teenage years, or it can be a launching pad for bigger things, like a career that involves your host country. What you do with your YFU experience is your decision to make, just make one.
I tried for years to score a job in Japan. When I finally did get a job there with the U.S. Government, I was excited beyond belief. Someone was going to pay me to go to Japan. When my wife and I told our friends we were moving to Japan they would ask, “Ja-pan? Why do you want to go to Ja-pan?” or “Wow, you’re gonna see a lot of Ty-odas and Geeshas”, and of course my favorite, “Hope you like Chinese food!” One of my friends did say, “Well, if that’s what you want.” That moment was defining. It essentially made me see how stagnant my life might become if I did not do this. If I’ve learned anything in my life it is this – You have to weigh the risk with the pros and the cons but sometimes you just have to go for it. If you get a chance to do something, especially if it is something you are really passionate about, and even if you are ridiculed for the idea, do it. I think that 9 times out of 10 you will not be sorry. So in 1997 I packed up my house, my wife and our 10-year-old son, and took them all to Japan to live.
We spent three wonderful years in Sasebo, about 45 minutes drive North of Nagasaki on the Southern island of Kyushu. My family and I were able to be fully involved with the local community with things like recycle drives and fire prevention education, disaster drills and festivals. It was an adventure for all of us but like my visit as an exchange student, the time passed too quickly. My three-year contract was expiring and we had to leave. My wife and son took from the time in Japan a greater understanding of the Japanese culture and a better appreciation of my passion. I look forward to many more trips to Japan and hope to work there once again.
J. Andy Bailes – Japan 1978